Commentary

Jim Boeheim and the damage done

The cost of his initial public outrage over the Bernie Fine allegations might be high

Originally Published: November 29, 2011
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Bernie Fine was fired as the Syracuse associate head basketball coach under circumstances that are disturbing on too many levels to count. There are the stories from the three alleged victims, the reflexive and near-violent defense of Fine by Jim Boeheim, and finally the creepiest thing of all: a 2002 recorded phone conversation in which Fine's wife adopts a shockingly casual tone regarding the entire operation.

When he was made aware earlier this month that ESPN was preparing to broadcast and publish the allegations involving his longtime assistant, Boeheim portrayed stepbrothers Bobby Davis and Mike Lang as liars and money grubbers. (Those initial comments are in this story.) By the end of this past weekend, after a third alleged victim had come forward and Laurie Fine's recorded words had been made public, Boeheim apparently had undergone a dramatic change of heart. A change of heart, it should be added, that was not nearly as vociferous as his initial tirade. A change of heart, it should also be added, that carried with it a strong whiff of self-preservation.

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AP Photo/Jessica HillJim Boeheim wants his players to think before they act. You wonder whether he thought before he spoke out in defense of Bernie Fine.

At first, Boeheim blamed the potential victims -- strongly, in no uncertain terms. But it's interesting that Laurie Fine headlined the blame-the-victim chorus nine years ago. ("You trusted somebody you shouldn't," she told Davis in the recording.) She did this even as she was speaking to one of those alleged victims and even though it's easy to infer by her own words that she knew quite a bit -- maybe everything -- long before Davis taped their phone call.

During the university's 2005 investigation into Bernie Fine's behavior, Laurie Fine reportedly helped stifle its progress by claiming the allegations were lies. In light of the recorded call, in which she seems to acknowledge her husband's aberrant behavior without explicitly naming it, she comes across as a possible enabler.

Of course, parallels are being drawn to the Jerry Sandusky-Penn State situation when the only real connections are the occupations and alleged perversions of the two men. Otherwise, it's two vastly different scenarios with vastly different circumstances. However, there is a universal thread -- the instinctual response to either blame the alleged victims (Boeheim) or simply wish them away (Mike McQueary, Joe Paterno). When faced with something so abhorrent and distasteful, it's the easiest route.

After all, nobody wants to deal with these issues. Nobody wants to face the possibility that creepy predators lurk in the back rooms of our metaphorical toy stores.

And that's precisely why men in positions of power and trust in high-profile occupations can repeatedly get away with sociopathic and criminal behavior. In retrospect, these men appeared to provide countless instances of odd behavior. Seriously, how many grown men repeatedly travel with young boys who aren't their children and stay alone with them in hotel rooms?

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AP Photo/Kevin RivoliBernie Fine, the man at the center of the Syracuse storm.

Boeheim's initial defense of Fine was so fierce, so adamant, so politically incorrect that, at least at the time, it demanded a moment of pause. He left no margin for error. He called them liars out for money. He insisted they were all motive and no opportunity. What did Boeheim know? It planted a seed of doubt. Davis had failed to gain traction with his accusations nine years ago. Maybe these stepbrothers were attempting to capitalize on the Sandusky case.

Among other things in his first comments about the case, Boeheim said, "The Penn State thing came out, and the kid behind this is trying to get money."

In light of the additional accuser and Laurie Fine's words, victim support groups and at least one national columnist are calling for Syracuse to discipline or even fire Boeheim because of his initial response. The words were wild and reckless. Inside their vicious disregard could be found a million reasons that so many victims stay silent.

Why would Boeheim risk so much to accomplish so little? How could he be so sure? He could have stuck up for his friend and left it at that.

But maybe the reasons for Boeheim's cringe-worthy rant can be found in the system itself. In the world inhabited by the omnipotent coach, everything he says is accompanied by a chorus of approval. Criticisms are disregarded, challenges to the throne dismissed. The media are stupid. The administration is stupid. Do you know how much money I make for this university?

Coach is always right, and the brand must be defended, at all costs.

In that context, maybe Boeheim's decision to blame before thinking -- to employ an us versus them coaching tactic to a problem in the outside world -- isn't that surprising. It was simply an extension of the philosophy of the system.

Portraits of the relationship between Boeheim and Fine make it evident there was a clear demarcation of duties between the two. Fine was the guy who did the mundane stuff: running camps, hiring refs for scrimmages, making sure players went to class, selling insurance on the side. Combine that separation of responsibilities with Boeheim's notorious aloofness, and maybe you find the perfect cover for a pedophile.

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AP Photo/David DupreyJim Boeheim's comments over the weekend indicate regret about his initial criticism of the alleged victims.

So back to the question: Should Boeheim be fired? It certainly wouldn't be an unreasonable act by the Syracuse administration. A case definitely could be made that his job should be payment for his cavalier and thoughtless words. But with no grand jury report or admitted eyewitnesses to guide us, we're seeking black and white in a haze of gray.

So many unanswered questions. Can you spend nearly 40 years working with someone and never truly know him? Can the all-consuming nature of coaching big-time college athletics blind someone to a person's true nature? Is success the perfect shield?

It's clear that Boeheim -- in true kinglike fashion -- was reacting out of a sense of betrayal. And even though his apology was far more measured than his initial blast, it seems that sense of betrayal has transferred from Bobby Davis and Mike Lang to Bernie Fine.

Whether the Syracuse administration feels Boeheim has irreparably damaged its brand and betrayed its interests remains to be seen.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com